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Updated Thursday, November 15, 2012 at 08:46 PM

Could coup install Rodney Tom as state Senate majority leader?

By Andrew Garber
Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Republicans are discussing another takeover of the state Senate — and installing Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom as the new majority leader.

Tom, D-Bellevue, said GOP senators have broached the subject with him, and Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt on Thursday confirmed the discussion.

"There's been some talk," Hewitt said in an interview. "It's not much different from what we did last year. You would have to go to the floor to do all this stuff, rather than having it done in caucus."

Last session, Republicans took control of the Senate budget when three Democrats, including Tom and Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, crossed party lines. That move led to a bitter partisan fight in the Senate and weeks of tenuous negotiations between the parties over how to deal with a large budget shortfall.

Any push to create a coalition majority and make Tom the majority leader likely depends on a close Senate race in Vancouver. Currently, Democrats control the Senate by a 27 to 22 majority. Republicans could pick up one seat, depending on the outcome of a race between Republican state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Democratic Rep. Tim Probst, also of Vancouver.

Benton is leading by 105 votes. If he wins, Tom and Sheldon would be key swing votes for Republicans. If Benton loses and Democrats keep the current majority, talk of revamping the Senate may die.

Making Tom the majority leader would require rewriting Senate rules on the floor when the Legislature convenes in January, and, presumably, the vote of every Republican senator along with Tom and Sheldon.

Sheldon was noncommittal when asked if he'd vote for Tom to be majority leader. "I'm open to a power-sharing arrangement" between the two parties, he said.

While Tom acknowledged Republicans have talked about him serving as majority leader, he said it's only one of several scenarios that could play out.

He was evasive when asked if he wanted the job. "You have to watch out what you wish for. A lot of it depends on the circumstance and if it's 25 (votes backing him) and all we're doing is throwing rocks back and forth, I don't think that's a fun environment for anybody," he said.

Asked if he would accept the job as majority leader if it was offered, Tom said, "I want a sustainable budget. Whatever role I can play in making that happen, I'm willing to play that role."

Hewitt on Thursday said that although the idea is being discussed, he has not raised it with his caucus yet and doesn't know if sufficient votes exist.

The advantage of having Tom as majority leader, Hewitt said, is that the Senate "would be operating from the center. We would be governing from the center rather from the left."

In addition to siding with the GOP last session, Tom helped craft the Democrats' budget in 2010, then turned around and voted against it.

Tom was first elected to the state House as a Republican in 2002, but switched parties in 2006 and later beat Republican Luke Esser to represent the 48th District in the state Senate.

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, was recently picked as the Senate majority leader by his caucus.

Murray said he's willing to discuss different ways to operate the Senate with GOP leaders.

"It appears there's an unstable majority," he said. "We should discuss how the Senate should function."

He urged Republicans to back off from the idea of another coup: "Rewriting the rules on the floor and throwing out how the Senate has operated, I believe, would poison our ability to function for the rest of the session."

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com


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